At the end of September, in responding to a Tweet from @RMASandhurst, Matthew Ford, in a threaded response, set out some of the key background concepts and themes which underpin and inform his new book on ‘Radical War’, co-authored with @andrewhoskins.
It is a good & worthwhile read.
The essential dilemma Strohn points towards is the speed at which the military need historical insights and the slowness at which deep history is written.
“Writing a long analysis of a subject and then being asked what the half-page summary is, is, from the historian’s point of view, depressing, but it is the character of Army business”
“But, likewise, the Army needs to understand that valid (deep) analysis cannot be produced to the usual headquarters time-lines. Otherwise, the Army will end up with a “Wikipediasation of history”
This appears to be a timeless problem that all historians face.
Is this a complete analysis?
I’ve just finished writing about this and I am not sure it is.
This past 20yrs, Govt has gone through a series of cycles of digitisation. This has created all sorts of knotty challenges. These range from refreshing hardware. Keeping OS updated & secure. Retaining data before hard disks are reused. Indexing data for future use. 6/
But it doesn’t stop there. Different systems make use of different data formats. Does anyone have a drive to access a 3.5″ floppy disk anymore? There are loads of different storage disk systems, external drives, flash drives and other devices that must be secured & archived. 7/
& so the military’s IT Estate has expanded, must deal with security considerations & like most things to do with organisations will at times be centralised & standardised so that the CIO can gain some controls and then decentralised and relaxed to allow users to actually work. 8/
It is a long time since I worked at PwC/IBM on IT Strategy but my point isn’t technical.
My point is that data lands on different military desks at different rates.
This is a function of the IT estate & the supporting structures that are involved in managing, storing and accessing data.
& the different information needs of different parts of the military organisation.
Govt data also moves more slowly than data in the public domain.
The whole world is now a giant sensor. By this I mean everyone is recording and publishing things to the web all the time.
If someone has a smartphone then a story has the potential to break more quickly than a Govt can keep up with it.
In these situations the military aren’t leading they reacting.
Simply put, speedy media publication on the fly disrupts military effects.
The military response?
To accelerate warfighting to the speed of data.
That way the armed forces are quicker than the enemy but also quicker than the speed at which a news story can break.
There are many dangers in taking this approach. I won’t go into them here (you’ll have to buy the book…).
But there are also challenges for historians working on war.
1st thing to say is that this has disrupted the military’s capacity to draw lessons.
Lt-Gen Sir Alistair Irwin (Adjutant General 2003-05) told the Chilcot enquiry
“the only lessons that are learned and put into effect are the ones that are put into effect immediately…”
“…unless the lesson is applied immediately, it will never be remembered.”
2nd, the quantity of data being recorded is immense. That forces the historian to learn new skills in data-mining/analysis etc.
3rd, not all the data is going to be properly captured/archived.
4th, public & ‘on the fly archives’ may be more efficient at capturing the ebb & flow of events than official sources but then how can we be sure they are robust, secure, haven’t been compromised by info operations & maintain high archiving standards.
5th, if the historian can’t keep up with the moment & the deep analytical history is harder given the quantity/accessibility/completeness of data then how will the historian contribute?
Finally, if history is being constantly reproduced, recontextualised, churned over and re-written in a ‘permanently on’ social media context where ‘nothing is true and everything appears possible’ then how does the historian get their message to ‘cut through’?
I’m not ruling out strategies for countering or dealing with these various challenges.
But IMO these challenges can’t be ducked.
Matthias gets us to the start of the problems but for me, they just multiply out from there.
In response to this thread, @KimAtiWagner posted a comment on military history.
The problem that I am raising isn’t about military history in particular.
It is with the future of history as a discipline.
If history as a field becomes harder to do the contemporary media ecology then where does it leave the field?
In our forthcoming book, @andrewhoskins & I argue that history as a field is supplanted by memory studies.
Because we are locked into media prisms that allow no escape.
All that is left are the impressions that we constantly recycle online.
Future history will only have these impressions to study.
In this context beating up military history is a minor blood sport.
Societies will be facing much bigger sense making challenges.
Actually an addition to an additional set of tweets.
I spoke to someone today and it was quite clear that they could not push for more long term thinking within defence, primarily because everyone was stuck in the permanent now.
Lessons learnt in this context were meaningless.